Monday, November 24, 2008


Γεια σας, Παιδία!

It’s a bit too tiring at night, after working out the old brain during class etc to say too much on the blog (i.e. I’ll try to write in the mornings :)). There are many wonderful gems one discovers from under various rocks here and there. Let’s try to share a few:

On Sunday my friend and I attended a lecture given by Fr. Symeon, who is becoming a more and more well-known spiritual father in the region around Thessaloniki. He is a tiny elderly priest-monk. He walks humbly and with a stooped posture. He has a brilliant smile and a wonderfully soothing high pitched (sing-songy) voice. On Sunday evenings he gives homilies to an auditorium filled with his spiritual children (one of whom estimated that he has well over 2,000 sp children who see him regularly). His talks are simple and unassuming. He sits at a desk on a platform in front of hundreds of attentive listeners and speaks quietly, humbly and (unfortunately for me) with little regard for enunciation of words :). Yet despite his subtle disposition, his powerful words touch the the thirsty soul and give the heart peace.

My Greek friend was there on Sunday as well, and was able to translate for a bit, because it’s difficult to pick up on his fast-paced speech, especially this early on in the game. Fr. S said so many wonderful things. He takes a bit of the Gospel and gives quite an accessible explanation of each little portion. His words are powerful and not empty. One senses a confidence inside each word that allows the gems to rest on fertile ground. The heart is soft in response. It can’t help it; he’s like a child.

He spoke of the need for persistence in our prayers to God, even to the point of being annoying. He pointed out that a patient soul is not irritated when another person is annoying, so how much more patient will God be with our persistence.

He spoke of the need to be like a child in our Faith. To deepen our understanding of this common analogy, he showed how children come with a positive emptiness. In other words, they have not been filled, like adults, with various opinions and the confusion and baggage of the world. He said we must strive to attain this same emptiness in order to be “child-like” in our Faith.

He said much more but unfortunately I was not able to copy it all down.

Anyway, HAPPY TURKEY DAY to all y’all in the States. I’ll miss all of the good food, that is for sure, but it’s ok to experience it from the outside for once. It will provide good perspective, and good content for the next Thanksgiving where I’m home and have to say what I’m thankful for (“I’m thankful that I can be home for Thanksgiving THIS year as opposed to previous years :)).

I’m making good friends with some of my classmates. They are all very friendly and EXTREMELY generous despite some of them coming from very difficult backgrounds. My one Ukranian friend who is 17 but studying Greek (and doing quite well...although this IS his 4th language :)). Was with me in the cafe the other day and I needed 50 cents. I asked him if he had it (in PERFECT Greek of course :)) and he quickly took out the change. Afterwards, we were walking back to our class and he turned to me and said ”My friend, ANYTIME that you need money I’ll give it to you, of course, that is, if I have it“. WOW! And you could really sense that he meant it. He’s been through a lot. He was sitting at his computer before coming to Greece in Georgia (the country from where he moved after the Ukraine) and was rudely interrupted by bombs hitting neighboring houses. He said that he had a hard time sleeping for a while after this. I wonder why. There are other examples of this level of generosity from others. How humbling. How much we, in America, have to be thankful for.

A Big Prayer: for Gratitude at this time of Thanksgiving

with much love and thankfulness for my family and friends,

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

learning a language...

Well, almost 2 months have gone by since my time in Greece began. It’s hard to believe. I was reflecting on my first few days here and how nervous I was walking around the city having practically no knowledge of the language and no idea what the layout was. For those of you who know me well enough, you also know that my sense of direction isn’t much to call home about. So, my first few days were spent looking at maps, trying as hard as possible to ingrain street names, directions, and locations into my brain as much as possible. Thessaloniki is really quite easy to navigate though, thankfully, and everything is pretty straight forward, especially here in the center.

Many people here (especially students) speak English...for better or for worse (for better at first, for worse when you want to speak Greek with them but they get impatient and switch to English).

I have made friends with some really wonderful Greek students. Besides the fact that they are all-around great people, they are also very patient with my current child-like speaking abilities and are willing to converse with me and correct me all at once. This is a real blessing, because I was finding it difficult to jump on opportunities to speak Greek, especially at first, when people would always want to switch to English. I’ve contemplated the idea of, at some point just saying, in response to their immediate switch to English, ῾Δεν μιλἀω αγγλικἀ. Μιλάω μονο γαλλικἀ῾ (i.e. “I don’t speak english. I only speak French...which is not if they actually spoke french, I’d have to claim muteness or something...Δεν μιλἀω καθόλου...I don’t speak AT ALL :)).

I have also started assisting at the reader’s stand for orthros at St. George’s (below me). It’s a lot of fun because I can learn Greek and a little byzantine chant all at once. It is strange to assist in a language that is foreign (although less and less so everyday). As of now, I read the Trisagion Prayers (Holy God...etc) the petitions (Lord have mercy etc) and some other short prayers. Slowly but surely I’m learning some of the longer prayers and tones. What a process though. I was telling someone the other day that it’s like opening up door and finding a whole other world on the other side. It’s actually much more exciting than I anticipated, even just to come across new words that will help beef up my vocabulary etc. It’s also a GREAT lesson in patience. One that I fail at regularly. There are some days when I feel like I am learning absolutely nothing, and others when I feel like everything is going so fast.

At the church, the chanter is a very nice elderly man named Nicholas. We’ve begun having rather long chats after church. He only speaks broken English, so it’s a perfect situation, because we speak mostly in Greek, but when I don’t understand a word, he will use a combination of English, Greek and complex hand gestures to explain it to me. He’s also very patient, and one of the few elderly Greeks that I have met who will actually speak clearly, slowly and didactically. It occurred to me that most Greeks from the older generations are definitely not as acclimated to the increasing globalization that the younger generations (esp in America) experience...where it’s common to have to speak slowly to a foreigner etc.

Anywho, all in all it’s pretty surreal that in two months I went from having virtually no understanding of modern Greek (and a bit of background in ancient Greek) to where I am now, albeit a FAR shot from being anywhere close to comfortable/fluent. Still a long ways to go, but I’m learning (and was told by a very nice priest here) that like many things, it’s as much about the process as it is about the result.

For any of you polyglots out there. If you have any tidbits of advice to throw my way, I’d certainly appreciate it. I’ve gotten some great advice thus far, which has REALLY been helpful, but I can always use more.

Ok, hope all is well with everyone!

with love in Christ,

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Practical Theology--The Value of Waiting

The last few days can properly be called “A Lesson in Practical Theology: The Value of Waiting.”

I realized in retrospect that I severely underestimate the value of waiting. In other words, how easy is it to jump directly to the result--to see life as a string of results that require “waiting periods.” These blips in time, as it were, are seen as an inevitable absence, as opposed to a crucial opportunity. Needless to say that my experience with the Resident Permit Office in Thessaloniki at least showed me how far I was from seeing an event as producing fruit when it doesnt produce results. Well, this is a bit abstract, but maybe you know what I mean. I wrote an e-mail to my mother and she suggested that I post my description of the Residence Permit office on the blog so that y’all can get a bit of a sense of what the bureaucracy is like in these parts. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly cynical descriptions. It was an amazing experience (mostly in retrospect) and one that I know I will remember for a long time to come...and sadly will probably have to repeat...although, God-willing, with a bit more patience, love, long-suffering etc etc etc.

I got the paper that I need to be able to travel back home for Christmas! God is very good and has taught me an immeasurable amount of lessons through this experience...

I bought Greek health insurance, because i won’t be covered by the school until next year and my American insurance only covers me for emergency care while abroad and the office won’t accept this. Well, after submitting my certificate for Greek insurance to the Residence Permit office I was told that they wouldn’t accept the letter from the insurance company because they claimed it didn’t cover enough. Yet the Insurance company, which is the biggest private company (at least for life insurance) in Greece sends the exact same letter to ALL of the offices all over Greece and only this office for ME gave them a problem. As it turns out, it was only because they didn’t know about the extent of my coverage and so they were a bit insecure and therefore rejected me. Imagine, having government workers reject an application based on insecurity...well, I’m sure it happens in the states, but I never had to deal with immigration offices before. I have to tell you, it has been an eye opening experience to see how some of these poor souls are treated when they seek solace in a country that is certainly better than their own (usually from Albania or Bulgaria etc.)...but I am VERY grateful that I am an American.

Imagine walking into a 3rd floor office which is appropriately placed at the end of a hidden stairway in back of a random alleyway on a small side street outside of the center of Thessaloniki. The first thing you smell (or rather see AND smell) is THICK THICK smoke from all of the agitated employees trying to calm their frayed nerves with cigarettes. Then you see a jungle of people—families with children, students, immigrants from Africa, china etc—and a jungle of paperwork that they are hurriedly trying to prepare for the employees who sit behind thick plexiglass counters and pretend not to speak anything but Greek, when in fact they often speak English. All of the signs are, of course, in Greek (b/c why would an immigration office EVER put up signs in English or some other language that ALL of its customers could understand :))...and you have no ideas where to go. Finally, after waiting for a good amount of time, you discover that you were supposed to give them your passport to save a place in line. They call your name and you go to spot at the counter where they take your application and pick it to pieces with random, useless criticisms that leaves your head spinning and completely bewildered. Then you are sent away and asked to change this sentence in one of the letters or that stamp on one of the pages. Multiply this experience times 3 or 4 (or if you are my friend from Montenegro, times 20) and you have a basic idea of the waiting period one must pass through. Most of the time they make up requirements that don’t even exist...blah blah blah...ok, I could go on...but I just wanted to give you an idea :). Lest you think my view of the "system" here is that it is totally defective or evil, please read on.

Any Balkan readers who are reading this are probably laughing at me right now. I’m sure this is pretty standard procedure, maybe even better.

Today, the day I received my paper, the office was exploding with clients SCREAMING at emplyees and employees SCREAMING back at clients. Two fights almost broke out and it literally seemed like the entire office of employees ended up yelling at eachother. They finally called the police who seemed to calm everyone down. 

Anyway...amidst this chaos, there are BIG lessons to be learned...prayer, inner peace, patience, love, long-suffering, selflessness etc.

You should try it sometime :)

Glad you stuck with me through the whole story.

Until next time,

with much love,

Monday, November 10, 2008

Weekend at Vatopedi

Dear Friends,

What a weekend! My friend Dn. Gregory and his (and now my) Greek friend Paris and headed off to Vatopedi Monastery on Agion Oros where we spent our Saturday, Sunday and part of Monday.

Upon leaving the Holy Mountain, Paris made the comment that every time he goes, it feels like time passes very slowly while he is there, but then when he leaves, it’s as if he had just left a moment ago. I truly felt the same way. Going to monasteries, for some reason, feels like an eternity of precious moments and blessings all strung together. Yet the “descent” into normal life is an experience in and of itself, often a battle between the loud and stressful jungle of everyday life and the quiet, unassuming, simple and eternal beauty of the spiritual life.

We were able to speak with the Abbot (Ephraim) and receive his blessing. He is a wonderful man--fairly young, white beard, very kind and joyful. I was struck by how intently focused he was on everyone he spoke to, devoting his entire attention to each individual, instead of scattering his attention all at once on everyone. He was very kind to us as well.

Providentially we met an American young man who Dn. Gregory immediately pegged as an American when he saw him in church. I, on the other hand, had this strange feeling that I recognized him. I couldn’t figure it out until we started talking and I discovered that he was the boyfriend of a friend of mine from our Diocesan conferences. We had even corresponded at one point during the past year, and I had seen pictures of him (which is why I recognized him). What a small small world.

One thought: I dragged a bit of skepticism along with me initially, as Vatopedi is such a LARGE monastery (over 100 monks, thousands of square feet and multiple large-scale projects being accomplished on site), and my experience had been at smaller monasteries. Would it be very impersonal or busy? Would the swarms of pilgrims (over 100,000 every year) detract from the desire for silence and pray? All of these thoughts ran through my mind before we arrived, and all of them were quickly put to rest as we were treating with the utmost kindness and philoxenia (very rich word for hospitality). Despite the shear enormity of all that is Vatopedi, one still sensed the intimacy of each monk’s struggle and intense prayer-life amidst it all.

Well, I’ll let the pictures say the rest. I’ve included a link of Dn. Gregory’s wonderful pictures of our week. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

2 entries in 1 day?!?!

Yes, who would have ever thunk...the man who can’t write a thank you note when someone gives him a million dollars is writing two blog entries in 1 day. Well well well...the world is a different place :).

One more thought. Just had a wonderful evening spent with beautiful young people going out to eat and celebrating a friend’s name’s day. Granted 90% of the conversation was in Greek, and I understand...ehhh...let’s not go there. But what a wonderful lesson. To experience joy even with a lack of understanding. To be in a position of helplessness and dependancy on the help of others. I won’t continue. Just to say that not knowing a language can be a blessing.

Abide in the Gospel...

I am continually reminded, amidst the various “challenges” (or in reality, blessings) that one faces studying abroad in a place like Greece, of some very good pastoral advice that I received via a homily:

Abide in the gospel. Do not abide in disturbances of everyday life, but abide in the Gospel.

This advice came back to mind as I was beginning to worry a bit about some paperwork that needed to be done, and I realized how I was dwelling in this problem, when I am, in fact, called to dwell in the the Way of Christ.

Anyway, just a thought from a wise priest that helped me in the midst of everyday life!

with much love,

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Γεια σας!

Not a whole lot to report on this side of the world. Today all of the Americans (and the rest of the Greek world) found out, early in the morning, that Barack Obama (Μπαράκ Ομπάμα στην Ελληνικά) will be the new president of the good old US of A. I’ve made a variety of friends from various countries (Congo, Brazil, Ukraine, Greece etc.), and everyone is thrilled that Obama won. My friends from Congo are especially grateful, because they strongly believe that some of his policy changes will affect the unstable situation in their country at the present. God-willing this will be the case. Nevertheless, it is very interesting to experience an American election from another country. EVERYONE, EVERYWHERE new that America was having elections. It was all over the news and many people were perhaps more interested in the results than many Americans. It’s all fascinating (and somewhat scary) to behold :).

This Saturday is my names-day new calendar (for Archangel Michael and the Heavenly Hosts), but before I had a chance to notice this I was invited and accepted an invitation to go with my friend Fr. Gregory to Mt. Athos. There they celebrate old calender which means they will not be celebrating Archangel Michael. But, not to worry, because St. George’s (as you know by now, if you’ve been keeping up with everything) has an “All Night” Vigil (Αγρυπνία) on Fridays and this friday will be for the Bodiless Hosts, so that will be nice.

Other than that there’s not much else to say. Just needed to fulfill my blogging obligation. I will check back in soon!

Discovered Gems
Here’s how we should see the path of love: “We get when we give, we don’t give when we get.” Inotherwords, we don’t give out of our bounty, but we give, period, and by this sacrificial giving we will find true joy.

“The more people deviate from the natural simple life and move towards luxury, the more human stress increases. And as worldly politeness expands, simplicity, joy and the natural human smile are lost.”
        -A very holy spiritual person

Say Glory to God and Lord Have Mercy. These phrases are like two wings that go together, and should be said throughout the day.